VIU business training program helps people with disabilities become entrepreneurs

Geneva Biggers (left) and Kendyl Perry right) enrolled in VIU’s Cooperative Entrepreneur Training Program. || Photo courtesy of VIU.
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Vancouver Island University’s (VIU) Cooperative Entrepreneur Training Program (CETP) offers students with disabilities, or those who have faced employment barriers, the opportunity to learn all the essential skills of being an entrepreneur.

Students like Geneva Biggers, who has decided to start a custom pillow design business and Kendyl Perry, who is starting her own photography and merchandise venture.

Biggers’ journey to entrepreneurship began when she decided to seek out a Black business to support. She found a New York-based business that sold specialty fabric. At first, she didn’t really have a plan for the fabric she bought, but soon decided it would make great pillows, and the idea of starting a business entered her mind.

At the same time, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, her mental health and the fact that she lives on disability with her 76-year-old mother and 19-year-old daughter, Biggers was worried about what the future might hold for her and her family.

It was then she decided to seek help from her employment counsellor, who suggested CETP.

“The program sounded perfect — and it is,” said Biggers. “I had no idea how much I would learn about business and myself.”

Perry says she decided to enroll in the program “because I wanted to learn the right terminology for business and wanted to take the next step with my business to grow.”

The program “is definitely an eye-opener on what being an entrepreneur is actually like and in what owning your small business is all about,” said Perry. “It really helps you execute and take your small business to the next level.”

Since its inception in 2018, the CETP has been fully funded by the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training, resulting in no program costs for eligible students. 

This year, for the first time, each student was matched with a mentor for the entire length of the program and received $1,500 in start-up funding from Co-Operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning (CEWIL) Canada. 

The 30-week, full-time program is a safe place for students to transform their business ideas into reality, said Amy Woermke, instructor.  “Entrepreneurship has been a long-standing means for persons with diverse abilities to make a life for themselves and contribute to their communities.”

Courses include a combination of business strategy, financial literacy, marketing and mentoring. While the program went completely online out of necessity amid the ongoing pandemic, it soon became clear that a virtual classroom actually opened up the program to students province-wide, who could learn from wherever they lived. 

As a result, the program saw all of its seats filled for the first time with students from across B.C. — students like Biggers, who lives and works in Mission, and Perry, who lives and works in Kamloops.

Woermke said the program will continue to be offered online to maintain accessibility from across B.C.

And although both Biggers and Perry are still currently in the program, they are each beginning to see their business ventures take off. Perry says she’s always wanted to have a small business and now she already has tote bags, pillows and headbands for sale that all feature her photography.

“I am hooked and I love what I am doing,” she said.

Biggers is currently working on two-custom beaded orders and found success attending her first market as a vendor recently, selling five of the nine pillows she brought with her. When she and her peers complete the program in May, “I think we’ll all be prepared.”

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